"They expect it."
"I won't then."
I look at him. "I like you better when you shave." He sighs and plugs in his shaver in a beleaguered way. "But don't empty your stubble all over the basin."
Jacob comes in, sniffing his discarded underpants. His tummy and back are covered in livid, picture-book spots. I grab him; he wriggles.
"Jacob's got some funny spots," I call to Jonathan over the noise of the shaver.
"Can I get the torch and go and see how the squirrel is?" asks Jacob.
There's a squirrel huddled under bricks in our yard. It fell out of an upstairs window, the third squirrel in a year to get stuck in our chimney.
For more than an hour we waited by the opened fireplace, wafting a jar of peanut butter. But when the animal emerged, it just skittered around, crazed and shrieking, blinded by the sudden noon of the sunlight. I screamed.
"It's going to jump at my throat!"
"Don't be a moron."
Sweating, Jonathan trapped it under a plastic seaside bucket and then slid a piece of cardboard underneath. We manoeuvred the frantic, squawking rodent to the open window. We were aiming for the extension roof just below but we pulled our hands away too quickly and, well ...
"He's just sitting there breathing," Jacob comes back upstairs, panting.
"If it's injured we should kill it," I mutter to Jonathan.
"Be my guest." He knocks his razor against the side of the basin - snowfall of banned stubble. He doesn't rinse the basin.
The dinner's in Maida Vale. The sky's still flushed, the birds still loud, flesh-coloured blossom stacked waxily above our heads. "Oh," I say, "I love that smell."
"What smell? I can't smell anything."
At dinner, a big man in a brown linen suit confides in me that he works for MI5. "What? You actually work in that amazing Lego building at Vauxhall? What's it like inside?"
"Well," he pauses, "It's actually very dark."
"Dark! But you can still work?"
"Just about. But then there's the white noise."
"So that no one can bug what anyone's saying - a security measure."
"But if you need to talk to someone you put on special headphones, blot it out."
"Julie," says Jonathan, "You're too gullible."
We argue about the homeless, Dennis Potter's life work, why banks loan money to small businesses, whether a friend's small business will eventually go bust, and whether the River Cafe Cook Book is any good for vegetarians.
Then we drive back through the centre of London, through a landscape of people eating and singing and throwing up and lolling in each other's arms and bedding down in corrugated cardboard beneath cashpoint machines.
A car's windscreen lies in icy blue crumbs on the pavement. An ambulance wails past, slick car ads are illuminated on billboards, litter floats in hopeless circles, caught in a wind trap.
"I knew he was kidding," I tell Jonathan, "About MI5. I was just playing along."
"Like hell you were."
I loll into sleep thinking of the murky green darkness of the Thames caressing the front of the MI5 building.
Next day, Emily-down-the-road finds the squirrel in her daughter's treehouse and takes it to the vet's. "The vet's?"
Jonathan shrugs. "I told her as far as I'm concerned it's a rat with a tail and if it even sniffs our chimney again, it's history."
"You're a hard man. There are people who really love animals and Emily's one of them. I've seen her almost in tears about the cats."
Exhausted and hungover, I take all the children and queue for two hours at the overheated health centre to see a locum about Jacob's spots. I might as well not have bothered.
"Rash," his command of English is similar to my grasp of the security services. He leans back, unshaven, spots of food solidified on his clothes.
"I just want to know if it's OK to send him to school. He's had chickenpox and German measles already, you see."
The man yawns, "You - surely - no consider send child to school with rash?"
I stiffen, "It depends - with an allergic rash, probably, yes."
The brown carpet in the room smells of skin and pee and Raphael and Chloe are rolling and fighting on it, near breaking point after two hours in a hot waiting room. "Stop it now!" my voice soars unattractively as I try to prise them apart. "I have to talk to the doctor!"
The man throws up his hands, "He stay off school, that is all!"
"But he's perfectly well -"
"I give you some cream, for dry skin."
"You don't keep a child off school with dry skin -"
"Raphael," says Chloe with a squirm in her voice, "Pull down my knickers." (He does.) "Stick your finger up my bum." (He does, sniffs it.)
"Right, OK," I yank them by their collars, "that's it, we're going, thank you, doctor, for your time."
On the pavement, I line them up, shout at them, then shoo them into the car. In front of us there's a skip containing a stained and rain-sodden mattress and a dead Christmas tree.
"I feel I want to bite someone," observes Jacob as we sit in devastated silence.
"I feel I want to bite the doctor," I admit.
By the time we've all stopped laughing, it's begun to rain.Reuse content